Every Christian seems to have a struggle accepting some particular aspect of the faith. It might be the biblical outlook on specific moral controversies, such as abortion or sexuality. It could be a general theme taught by the Church, like the idea that there is an absolute truth to which everyone must answer. For me, the greatest private struggle with the Christian faith is one of Jesus’s practical teachings, often known as “turning the other cheek” (cf. Mt. 5:39 NAB). I can be a grudge-nurse, an instinctive revenge-taker, an accountant of misdeeds and injuries. In the midst of pain over someone’s wrong against me, whether slight or great, I tend to feel that my healing should begin with redirecting hurt toward the other person.
A multitude of influences lead us to respond to one evil with another, and sometimes greater, evil. Our own sin-wounded human nature, our own pride and egotism, is frequently enough. The world itself acclaims those who retaliate against wrongdoers and oppressors—the government that executes a criminal, the politician who returns the spite of a hated rival. Perhaps most powerful is our urge to forgo mercy and chase destruction, to satisfy our own individual and collective sense of justice.
Jesus asked a lot when he gave the command to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). It’s not something we consider natural. Deep within us is a fear that the choice not to pursue revenge demeans us, reveals our weakness, and even reveals a lack of dignity. But Jesus never asked us to do something that violated our personhood. The refusal to respond in evil is not the surrender of a weak soul; it is a life-giving resolution that demands discipline and confidence in God’s power over all circumstances.
When Jesus spoke the Beatitudes during the Sermon on the Mount, he promised ultimate vindication for “the meek”; for “they who hunger and thirst for righteousness”; for “the merciful” and “the peacemakers” (5:5-7, 9). Each of these callings describe followers whose final confidence rests in God—not other men, not an institution, and not themselves—to correct all wrongs. In telling the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus instructed Peter, and through him all current and future believers, to recognize that we will never forgive anyone as much as God has already forgiven us (Mt. 18:21-35). A relationship with him should make our lives a celebration of the mercy shown to us, and it should provide for mutual leniency and peace in our relations with other people (Luke 2:14)
“Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). If we appoint ourselves the judge in God’s place, we’ll get the mean, quick gratification we want, and the heartache and lingering animosity we never planned. But if we refuse “to be conquered by evil,” we will “conquer evil with good” (12:21) and reflect the new life he has won for us. That’s hard to do, but it’s the strongest and truest way to live, and the only way to freedom (John 8:32).
If there’s one thing that can come between God and people, it’s God’s people.
Just recently, during a medical appointment, a technician told me she hadn’t baptized her children as Catholics because she had some lingering antipathy toward her childhood parish. Her mother was the only woman in the town to have been excommunicated for divorcing. The monsignor who headed the local school often asked the little girl why her mother wasn’t at church, though he obviously knew that the experience of attending while being forbidden from Communion was humiliating.
Incidents of social stigma, of course, aren’t restricted to one part of the faith. My grandmother grew up in terrible poverty in coal country and had trouble feeling God’s love because her classmates, all Baptists, ridiculed her for her lack of table manners and shabby clothing. My mother didn’t get married until she was in her middle thirties, and until that time she often skipped services at her Baptist church because of the moral suspicion and condescension directed at singles. (I can’t help wondering if the Pharisees who view singles as incomplete human beings ever realize that the incarnation of God was an unmarried carpenter).
I’ve always suspected that few people are driven from Christianity by purely rational objections, even if they claim this is the case. More often, I see believers who feel rejected by God because a self-identified Christian, perhaps even someone entrusted with authority in a church, had found them lacking in a trivial respect. This struggle, this sense of being an unwilling outsider, is the only fight that has ever endangered my faith. Asking God for an answer, I found great relief in remembering that Jesus, too, was an outsider among religious types.
Christ was born of a young, unwed mother (Mt. 1:18 NKJV). His identity as the Messiah was least believed in his “own country” (Mt. 13:54), where those who knew him best were “offended” (v. 57) at his teaching. He told a scribe, bluntly, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Mt. 8:20).
Jesus knew well the awkwardness and anguish of being an outlier. His experiences of rejection didn’t turn him from God; instead, he directed his love all the more fully toward the misfits and outcasts of society. He touched lepers (Mt. 8:2-3), ate with despised social groups (Mark 2:16), and spoke in public with a Samaritan woman (John 4:9) despite the Israelite prejudice against that ethnicity. At every opportunity, he made himself the definition of loving God “with all your heart” and, of necessity, extending that same love to other people (Mt. 22:37; 39).
Don’t become troubled in your faith because you’ve conflated God’s warm, welcoming, open character with the personality defects of other believers. We have a God who sympathizes with the outsider life—because he lived it. His love for us, and his understanding, demand we find courage and peace in that example.
There once came a moment for me when, just like everybody, I desired to do something intensely but felt nervous and uncertain about the outcome. Like any sorry Christian, I turned to God and asked him to rubberstamp what I wanted, just to know it was okay to go for it. From reading the Bible I intimated that he was telling me no, but I continued to pray and struggle and press harder against his response, convinced that I was letting my nerves fool me into missing his true reply.
Then, while I was studying a passage from Charles Stanley’s daily readings in his magazine InTouch, the answer smacked me. It was as simple as a word. No. Immediately I felt the heaviness of my stubborn attitude. God had pointed out how my desires were blinding me to applying what I knew in my head—that his purposes were right and his truth ultimate. The fear I felt at having come so close to a foolish decision was matched only by the relief of knowing God had protected me from that choice and was even willing to shout at us if it meant our good.
Mulling this experience, I realized not just that God had responded, but that he had spoken. This answer was the voice of God, and I had heard it. In the popular imagination, hearing the voice of God is a phenomenon usually relegated to criminal schizophrenics on Law & Order. But though this voice was real and present, I knew I hadn’t hallucinated it because it didn’t manifest as an audible sound, or really anything that touched my senses. Rather, it was the force of God’s personality leaning on my own spirit—the sense of his truth combating and overwhelming my own version of reality. It was “Discretion will preserve you” (Proverbs 2:11 NKJV) vs. “You can have it all, just as you want it, right now.” It was words, not of my own devising, that appeared in my mind while praying halfheartedly for an expected answer.
From this treasured occurrence, I drew out three characteristics associated with hearing God’s voice that can help us discern when we can be sure he is speaking. I believe all of these traits are scriptural and that they are borne out both in the Bible’s narratives and in firsthand Christian experience.
While I firmly believe these truths to be the touchstones of listening to God, I would welcome any additional guidance or wisdom that God has revealed to you through your experience in prayer and seeking to hear his voice.
In 2011, Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, resigned from his post. The reason for his leaving was not the usual adulterous affair or crass political endorsement, but a book Bell wrote, entitled Love Wins, in which he advocates for uncertainty about the existence of hell and chides Christians for their emphasis on it. Though he embraced no particular view on the matter, Bell’s openness to universalism—the belief that all people will eventually be saved in the afterlife and go to heaven—made him a pariah in the evangelical community.
No matter your church, hell is not fun to talk about. Jesus speaks of it as “fire” (Mt. 18:9 NKJV). Revelation calls it “the second death” (21:8). 2 Peter 2:17 and Jude 1:13 both describe hell as “blackness.” Scholars generally accept that these are metaphors for the disintegration (fire) and blindness (darkness) of the soul in hell. Perhaps all we know of hell, or need to know, is that it is a state of separation from God. But does it last forever?
The Bible is adamant that Christ is the only means of grace and reconciliation to God. “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father,” 1 John 2:23 states. “Nor is there salvation in any other name,” Peter preaches in Acts 4:12, “for there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.” Some universalists, surprisingly, agree to this, but argue that the Gospel will be preached to the lost after death until all of them are converted to faith in Jesus. Eternal loss, they believe, does not fit with a loving God.
I agree with them that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But I think their view misunderstands love.
Love is a mutual bond of self-giving and fidelity between two personalities who must be absolutely free not to love each other. If one person is not free to refuse the bond of love, then the bond is illegitimate, a kind of slavery. I think everybody instinctively knows that love coerced is not really love.
The British theologian John Hick, a supporter of universalism, wrote that no one in the afterlife would resist the Gospel once they discovered their error. After all, who would choose to continue in hell instead of seizing their ticket to heaven? I would challenge Hick’s entire premise here—there are probably souls who are spiritually obstinate enough to remain on the outskirts of paradise and blame God for their errors, as in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce—but let’s assume that Hick is right and every lost soul comes to God, tail between its legs. Would their salvation be from a true love of God, or would it result, as Hick implies, from a desire to escape hell? Real love cannot be coerced.
The only time when we can receive a relationship with God is now, in our present life, when we have total freedom to resist God’s offer. God does love all of us, and desires all of us to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but love is not fulfilled if its object refuses it. This is as true of a rejected marriage proposal as it is with God. And he knows love enough to know the choice rests with us.
I don’t pretend to be unaware that this is difficult for people. Everybody has a felon cousin or an alcoholic uncle or a shoplifting neighbor whose soul they might fear for. But our emotions can entangle us into a wrong view of God and an unworthy idea of what love means. In John 4:34-36, no one less than Jesus reminds us that the harvest is now, not months and years from now. Any belief that would lessen the urgency of his Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) is an insult to his Gospel.
“I pay my taxes like everybody should…”
“Just because I’m not perfect…”
“Well, I didn’t mean to shoot him…”
Maybe you have defended or justified yourself with one of the above lines. I have to hope you didn’t use the third one (I’m talking to YOU, Dick Cheney). It is comforting to externalize evil, to believe it an out-there force embodied in terrorists and abusive parents, while our families and friends are flawed but basically good people.
That belief is wrong.
There are no good people. Truly. And I’m not speaking on my own authority here.
In June, I wrote on five kinds of preachers who don’t bring love and truth to a church, whether by incessant talk of damnation, political pandering, soft commitment to Scripture’s teachings, or preoccupation with family anecdotes. Now I want to share three ways that one Baptist church I met had a tangible difference in its message and culture.
1) The church believes missions should happen everywhere. The pastor encourages missionaries to travel to Africa, to Haiti, to Native American reservations. But he declares it no less honorable to evangelize Philadelphia, or Cincinnati (ten minutes away from us), or down the block at a liquor store, or on your neighbor’s porch. Churches often fail to reach people on their doorsteps because the Gospel seems more available to Americans. But Christians are to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19 NIV), and that includes college students, sales clerks, and newspaper boys in our hometown as much as it does tribesmen in distant wilds.
I’m sometimes hooked by the CBS procedural Criminal Minds, but last Wednesday’s episode, “Angels,” gave a fine image of how Hollywood writers view Christianity. (Here there be spoilers). The FBI’s profilers are called to a Texas town where prostitutes are being murdered. One of the suspects is a hostile reverend whom all the residents call “Preacher,” who runs a ministry for victimized women. With the hucksterism of a televangelist, he assures the victims’ survivors that they “must have faith” and not question anything.
The Preacher is revealed to be running the prostitution ring (of course!) He turns out not to be the killer, but in the episode’s final seconds, fearing arrest, he grabs a machine gun and shoots two of the show’s beloved agents.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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